"been to" (be to) is used in perfect tenses - in sentences like the ones below:

  • I have never been to the opera.
  • I have never been to a baseball game
  • I have never been to a Pentecostal Bible rally.
  • I have never been to your house.
  • I had never been to your country.

(Thanks to @Robusto for examples.)

Can I use "be to" in any other tenses? What would be the meaning then?

Thank you!


This question is about verb of being + to + location: why this is only seen in "perfect" forms, not in simple present or past, such as "I am to Spain" etc.

  • Do you mean be to exactly in that plain form, or do you mean in its inflected forms? – Barrie England Oct 1 '12 at 19:02
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    Future perfect - "If I die tomorrow I will never have been to a Pentecostal Bible Rally." Interesting question; it never occurred to me that there was a perfect-only idiom. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 1 '12 at 19:04
  • Barrie England: Inflected forms. Sorry for omitting that. – Martin Vseticka Oct 1 '12 at 19:10
  • @tchrist His last example is pluperfect. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 1 '12 at 19:11

The observation behind this question is very nice. Use of this locution in indeed limited, to perfect tenses:

  1. Present perfect: I have been to London to visit the Queen
  2. Past perfect (pluperfect): I had never been to London before you took me
  3. Future perfect: I will have been to London by the time you return

You can clearly imagine putting the phrase into other tenses. For instance, by analogy of I have been silly to I am (being) silly, you could form *I am to London, *I am being to London. Similarly, you expect *I was to London (I was silly) and *I will be to London (I will be silly). But none of these are possible.

Note 1. It is wrong to think of to have been as having have as a main verb. If so, one would expect the possibility of the past perfect have had been (comparing to, say, have had it coming), and this is clearly impossible.

Note 2. There is a (rather outmoded English?) idiom to have been, without any destination/location specified. It is a euphemism for going to the toilet. Monty Python made a recurrent joke out of it in a skit based around an Agatha-Christie-style murder (the reluctance to say murdered led to numerous characters asking simply Has he been ... ?, to which the others would answer something like Yes, before lunch).

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In addition to the uses suggested in the comments, there is also the construction be to + verb, as in, for example, You are to fly to Paris and await instructions. It's formal, and possibly outdated.

(On a point of nomenclature, grammarians do not these days on the whole speak of perfect tenses. They recognise only two English tenses, present and past.)

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    That's not quite the same thing. For it to be truly parallel, you would have to be able to say "You are to Paris and await instructions." – Robusto Oct 1 '12 at 19:20
  • If they don't speak of 'perfect tenses', what then do they speak of? Do grade school grammarians actually refer to aspect? – Mitch Oct 1 '12 at 19:36
  • Then I am not sure what the question is. – Barrie England Oct 1 '12 at 19:37
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    Hang on people. The question (minus the descriptive bits) was Can I use "be to" in any other tenses? Barrie has given a perfect answer to this question, along with an example of the use of "be to" in another tense. The two people who have downvoted him clearly can't read! – user16269 Oct 1 '12 at 20:28
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    I just made a comment on his answer, that's all. But it should be obvious to anyone that the OP's examples all take places as complements to to, not verbs. – Robusto Oct 1 '12 at 21:37

There is a common occurrence of "be to" in the present tense in Newfoundland English:

The use of "to" to denote location is common in Newfoundland English. Where's that to? ("Where's that?"). This is a carryover from West Country dialects and is still common in southwest England, particularly Bristol.

Interestingly, the question "Where are you to?" means "How are you doing?" Here's an example (near the end of the paragraph beginning "Of particular interest...") and here's another (middle of the paragraph beginning "As I transitioned...").

Note that this usage is not common in mainstream Canadian English.

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An example says

most flights are to London Heathrow

where are has a meaning close to go or something similar, in the same way as been is close to gone in your example. Ins and Outs of prepositions, The: A Guidebook for ESL Students has

The train is to New York

His question is to me

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    This is not really parallel, either. That a flight may go to Heathrow may be expressed as "this flight is to Heathrow" but you can't really substitute a person for the flight: "I am to Heathrow" doesn't quite work, and that is what the OP is interested in. – Robusto Oct 1 '12 at 20:46
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    "I am to London" sounds a bit Shakespearian but I would not reject it. – Henry Oct 1 '12 at 20:52
  • @Henry: I've just been trying to find a supporting Shakespearean quote, but can't. I feel there must be one, not that it would be of much relevance to contemporary English. – Barrie England Oct 1 '12 at 20:57
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/To_market,_to_market - OK, not Shakespeare, I know. – user16269 Oct 1 '12 at 21:41
  • Shakespearian would be I must to Heathrow, or I shall to Heathrow, but I don't think it works with am. – Peter Shor Oct 1 '12 at 23:58

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